Connecting on Whose Terms? Extending @pernilleripp Downsides of Being a Connected Educator

By Maha Bali, Cairo, Egypt

Becoming a connected educator is probably the best thing, career-wise, that has ever happened to me. I now have a support network of other educators, where I can draw inspiration, brainstorm solutions, share problems and victories, conduct research, carry out cross-cultural classroom collaborations, get emotional support and have loads of fun. It’s an incredible approach to professional development that is messy and yet helps me learn something new and important every single day; sometimes even every tweet or blogpost, such that I learn something new every minute I am online! (Maureen Crawford recently shared a great website on the value of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) and how to develop them)

It’s Connected Educator Month (we need a month for this daily lifestyle?) and I thought I would write this post as a response to Pernille Ripp’s post The Downsides to Being a Connected Educator. I thought it might be appropriate to write about the perspective of a connected educator from Egypt and how the downsides differ slightly, because when I connect with other educators online, I am mostly connecting with educators from the global North, on their terms. In their language (English), on their timezone (unless they are in Europe, which is my timezone), discussing what is largely their context. The downsides from my perspective look different.

Let me take Pernille’s downsides one by one, and extend them (the headings in bold are from Pernille’s post, the paragraph text is mine)

You are no longer private.
This is true wherever you are: if you become an open connected educator, even though you choose what to share of yourself, you become much more exposed and you make yourself vulnerable to all kinds of opinion by others, some of which can really hurt. But there are two ways this is different for someone like me.

First, although everyone can be misunderstood, writing in your non-native language to people unfamiliar with your culture, you open yourself up to even more misunderstanding. Global interaction is not a panacea, and as Bonnie Stewart mentions, we should not assume something as complex as intercultural understanding can be achieved quickly and easily; certainly not in 140 characters and not by seeing one or two blogposts or comments, and not even by meeting on video online for weeks in a row. People in the UK/US know very little about my language, culture, context. I know quite a bit about theirs because I was educated in their schools/universities, I read their books and academic papers, I watch their movies and TV shows, and have lived in their countries. The reverse is not true. And still, there are cultural references they make that I misunderstand or do not understand at all. And there are elements of my own culture that I constantly need to make explicit for their benefit. To be understood. On the other hand, people often surprise me by how much they genuinely want to know and understand about me.

The other risk I take in writing publicly is political. I don’t write a lot of political posts, and that’s partly because I know academics in my country have been jailed because of their outspoken political views. I do write about political aspects of education (often in online magazines rather than my blog, such as Al-Fanar and Open Democracy), but I probably unconsciously self-censor.

You can get a big head.
I’ve always said that blogging is a mix of arrogance and humility. Humility in making yourself vulnerable, but also arrogance in believing someone else might actually want to read what you write. I agree with Ripp that the responses of others, the follow count, all of these, get to one’s head. It gets to my head when someone really well-known follows me on Twitter, or responds to my blog, or becomes a friend via email of DM or wants to hangout with me. And yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I also know this: people are fascinated by the exotic, and isn’t it exciting for them to be in touch with an educator from Egypt? I love their excitement. I hope it’s for my person, but I also understand it may not start out that way.
One important thing to keep me grounded is this: my growing online following is not a sign that I am a good educator, but it may help me become a better digital educator. It’s not a sign of how well I connect, either. But it’s a sign of how well I connect online, and that’s still something.

You can get really jealous.
Ripp cites Michelle Baldwin’s post on the fact that being connected means you compare yourself to a much wider group of people, not just those around you. And you get jealous of what others can do. This is much more exaggerated when you are me. All the way here in Egypt. It’s more than missing that google hangout that is at 3am my time (and believe me, when it is at 1 or 2am, I actually make the effort to go to it; ask my husband who looks at my like I am nuts for doing this as often as about 1-2 nights a week). Sure, so I was a really active virtual participant at the #et4online conference, and I am on the steering committee for the 2015 conference, but I want to actually go and meet everyone in person, and although this is possible (pending funding from my uni and logistical parenting arrangements), I can do this very infrequently because the costs are high and logistics complicated. Sure, I get conferences here in Egypt, but the scale is totally different. Another example? I was asked to join the awesome facilitation team of #ccourses, but the original facilitators (many of whom are good friends already; some of whom I have gotten close to recently) have already all met in person.

You feel you need to be perfect.
Ummm I don’t really agree with Pernille on this one; I just recently published an article on some of my failures, and it wasn’t even in my blog, but in Hybrid Pedagogy. But here is what I do feel I need: I feel that I need to keep addressing my (mostly) Western audience about the topics they want to read, even when I want to talk about something else – and so I find I end up tailoring every post so they can understand it (more details than an Egyptian audience would need). I am not too upset about this, but it made me realize that the opposite is not true: a US blogger won’t naturally provide heavy context for their own blogging because they assume readers (even international ones) have some background on it. Because I work at an American university, I often can understand a lot of the context, but I wouldn’t have if I had been at a local university.

You lose time from other things.
Again, this is true – often its time away from family. Luckily, much of my synchronous meetings can take place at night after my daughter sleeps because most of the people I meet are on a US timezone. But if I could be doing this kind of thing in the mornings while I am at work (my preference when it’s possible like with someone in the UK) it helps my private life so much better (and work can afford it, since my online activity spills back into it indirectly).

You are perceived a certain way.
Obviously, we don’t blog about every single thing we do and sometimes a few popular blogposts we write become sort of like our trademarks or brands. People can start reducing you to just one or two aspects of your personality. As someone from a different country, people will often perceive me as this open connected educator from Egypt. So when another Maha from Egypt became part of my PLN (and we have strangely similar personalities) some people started to confuse us with each other, given how our name and location used to be our unique identifying features! This doesn’t often happen to every David from the Anglo world 🙂

You may forget about your local PLN.
This forgetting about local PLN is really important because you can start getting your head in the clouds and forget that your local context is very different, and all these open educators’ ideas are really difficult to implement at your institution. So this is a good tip from Pernille not to forget to nurture our local relationships (professional and personal) as well. For me, I hope to also bring in more local friends onto my online PLN: this both connects me to them more closely, gives me more to share with them, but also importantly increases global South presence in online communities and that, I believe, is useful for everyone involved.

You think there is a right way.
I have to constantly remind myself that not everyone is willing to make themselves vulnerable and out there. Not everyone is capable or motivated to deal with the constant slew of information that you get when you become connected. And more than that, not everyone is comfortable expressing themselves in English, or comfortable writing in blogging-style (there is a range, of course, but still), and that some people are not comfortable with the highly verbal learning that occurs online, because, let’s face it, it’s often highly text-reliant. And of course not everyone has the connectivity and the right devices to support that connectivity (like I would not be able to keep up with twitter without the iPad notifications).

You may become a target.
I am going to take this point away from what Pernille was talking about and change it into one where political bloggers & tweeters in Egypt can become targets for surveillance or worse. It’s more than what would happen to your regular blogger elsewhere.

Again, I note these downsides, but I embrace connectedness wholeheartedly. This recent article by Curran and Monaghan says:

Connected educators are redefining the role of teacher and student in the classroom. Being a co-learner is an opportunity to change the traditional role of the teacher, a chance to embrace change and break down the four walls of the classroom in order to think critically and act creatively with your students and colleagues from all over the country and around the world. This requires students and teachers alike to “get comfortable with the uncomfortable” as often, this is where true learning happens. Connected educators encourage, applaud and celebrate risk takers.

So even though this article was about the downsides, I have to admit that the same open online connected experiences that disconnect me a little from my local networks are the same ones that strengthen me in my local networks as well; that even though cross-cultural understanding and collaboration are not simple, they are so much more possible because of connected educators; sure, I am jealous that I cannot meet everyone in my network the way they meet each other, but I am fortunate to know them at all, and I would not have had those rich and meaningful relationships without the open connected environments and the cool, critical, caring and connected people who make them possible. So even though I share some of Pernille’s downsides, because my context is different, I have slightly different downsides. In some ways, the downsides of being a connected educator for me are so much more than if I had been in and from the US or UK. And yet, the potential for empowerment is also so much stronger. And that’s why I still connect 🙂

12 thoughts on “Connecting on Whose Terms? Extending @pernilleripp Downsides of Being a Connected Educator

  1. Maha: I love your reflection. You certainly engaged me as a learner and connected educator. I appreciate the risks you take being open. It can be a courageous act for sure. I could most certainly identify with a lot of what you shared in this post. Being an open connected educator is a gift, but as in life some of the best gifts we have can have a downside to them , however that doesn’t mean we should not share those gifts . I believe when we do we often get back tenfold.

    Thanks so much for sharing your gifts. Keep connecting!

  2. What a great post! I am interested in learning more about things that you are editing out due to Western audience :))

    I agree that perfectionism can be an issue, but for some reason the opposite has happened to me in the connected learning process. I guess that means I feel safe being imperfect. And being perceived that way. But being “real” feels more important.

    My connected learning experience has affected my local PLN in that I expect more from them and am more frustrated by their reluctance to embrace learning about new ways of doing things.

    Incredibly glad I have met you.

    1. I was going to say that I’m interested in hearing about those things that Maha is editing out too! ; )
      I have found the same too – once you start being exposed to ideas and interesting new ways of doing things it can be frustrating going back into your own organisation where people sometimes don’t understand what you are trying to do, or even what you are talking about : ) But that this part of the challenge of making any type of change in a social context I guess.

  3. Hi Maha, thanks for taking the time to write this post – gives a perspective on some of the unique challenges that you face from Egypt. The types of challenges that people from relatively stable Western democracies just don’t face. One of the other things about your context that you didn’t mention explicitly in this post (but which made me realise for the first time how different the environment you were living and working in was to mine – and most others you connect with online) – is the regular electricity cuts that you have to deal with. It’s not something that those in western democratic nations ever need worry about (unless of course we haven’t paid our bills on time..!) and because you are have such an active presence online, it’s probably something that most people don’t realise is an issue for you (just makes your online presence all the more amazing!). I appreciate you mentioning the political issues and the risks – again, something we don’t really have to think a lot about in Western / anglo, politically stable democracies.

    BTW, I truly think that the reason people want to connect with you is not simply because you are ‘exotic’ – it’s because of how actively you participate, your enthusiasm, your authenticity and the pull of your personality : ) (But don’t let that give you a big head!) ; )

  4. Maha, what a treasure trove of pertinent reflections (and so rich in must-read resources). There’s so much I identify with here. I have been struggling with the time management aspect of being a connected educator lately. My inner mantra goes “so much to learn, so little time”… I also really like the way you have given us a taste of your unique context/perspective in your post.
    Thank you for making me think about connectedness. It’s crazy how I used to live without it, not so long ago. I am so greatful we have met and have been somehow managing to stay connected in spite of the messiness.
    Much love and gratitude,

    1. Clarissa – I hear you. I am constantly struggling with the time management aspect of connecting, and balancing priorities. (Need to learn not to use it as an excuse to procrastinate on uni studies…like now :P)

  5. Maha, I read your post a few days ago, and didn’t know where to start to respond to it. There is so much to be learned from it, so much to think about. As Clarissa has said above, it’s a “treasure trove” of information and reflection. I’m exhausted to go back into details now, but while reading what you’ve written, I came up with a humble teaching idea: encourage students to connect to one person at a time. Don’t try to connect to “the world” or feel like you’re not being connected if you don’t have a massive network; connections should be meaningful and even mutual. Don’t reject something wholesale, unless you want to join the party too late, lose what you didn’t learn about along with what you didn’t like… Like you’ve suggested, there’s no perfect or right way to connect; it’s the small, meaningful moves that will connect you to like-minded others across the world– like the wonderful edcontexts community we’re creating. Thanks a ton again.

  6. Maha I really appreciated this post of yours. I particularly noted your points in local connections. I think there is a risk of ephemera in our connections if we are not deeply embedded in our local context.

    I also think that we are constantly acting as intercultural interfaces between different levels of culture – online/language/generation etc – I am sure that not everybody can or will live in the way that we do.

    I think that ‘connected educators’
    (If we view that from the intercultural/online/offline variety) are a specific group of facilitators.

    There are also other groups he need to be brought to the forefront – physical/intellectual/plastcian/mechanical/ etc facilitators.

    I feel that the major problem is the absurd separation of learning time/subject/role which we see.

    I would suggest that we need to view things in terms of theatre with all the different skills working together on a shoWwW.

  7. Thanks Maha for building on Pernille’s OP with your local insights.

    While the differences between Western and non-Western contexts can be quite profound, I would add that the contexts *among* Western contexts can sometimes be quite different.

    In Australia (where I am), we too struggle with the timezone differences. Our education system is in many ways vastly different from America’s. Our big cities are incredibly multicultural. Our indigenous challenges are different. The world’s leading conferences (and award ceremonies!) are thousands of miles away.

    Having said that, I really don’t blame the Americans and the Brits for sharing their thoughts and experiences in their own contexts, because that’s what I want everyone to do. In fact, more non-Americans & non-Brits should follow their lead and start connecting and sharing more. And I thank you for doing that.

    I think your determination to bring in more local friends into your online PLN is a sound one. I make a conscious effort to connect to as many Aussies as possible, and to meet up with them in-person. Since the local context is always unique in some way, we need to learn from the locals.

    Unlike you though I have felt the need to be perfect. The reason being, combined with no longer being private and becoming a target, there is always someone out there ready to pounce on something you shared, attack you for daring to suggest an alternative pov, decree that you are wrong, and question your intelligence. Never mind that absolutisms such as right and wrong are nonsensical out of context, I do tend to review my draft blog posts prior to publishing them with a critical eye asking myself, how might a troll respond to this?

    But like Pernille I have grown a thicker skin over time. I am feeling more confident in the validity of my own opinions, and more comfortable with giving to world whatever it is I have to offer. Thank you for doing so too.

    1. Ryan! Thanks for visiting Edcontexts and posting such a thoughtful reflection. I’m sorry for the extremely belated reply….!

      Good point about Western contexts not being uniform – definitely true, there is a lot of variation across Western contexts. Particularly – as you have pointed out, if you compare Australia and the USA and/or Britain. There are a range of differences resulting from our unique historical, cultural and social contexts. And the timezone difference is a logistical one but one which carries with it implications of potential exclusion and/or creates barriers to participating.

      Also really interesting to hear different blogger’s perspectives on posting opinions and thoughts in the public sphere. I think most bloggers or writers, tend to be on the more cautious and self conscious side (I know I am…!) but I guess like anything, it’s something that feels easier with time and practice. Thanks again Ryan for adding to the conversation!

  8. Maha, this is so true. All points you said.

    It reminds me of your previous blog post on being vulnerable when you blog. But you know, I’ll have my fair share of stories some other time when it come to blogging, choosing an academic track and those anticipations that one day one of your students will decide to Google your name.

    For now, I just want to say I really am glad with all the PLN we get to develop. I’ve been fascinated by Tanya and Bonnie’s researches on PLN and Academic Twitter. Internet and social media used to be all personal use for me before, but turning it around there’s really so much more you can utilize and discover.

    I’ve been blogging for years since I was a freshmen undergrad student. And I’ve also met people on the net but I have lost touch with them now. Probably because the relationship was superficial. And also they’ve stopped blogging as I have also abandoned my old blogs.

    Now I’m glad and I am sure that the people I’ve met on Rhizo, EDCMOOC etc would be there as I grow further in my career and grow as a person. For example, it’s going to be a year since Rhizo14 and we’re all still connected to each other! 😀

    Sure I’ve gone “off line” for a bit while but when I decided to go back “on line” I sure know where to find you guys! 🙂 I believe what keeps us connected is we’re all either in academe or yearn and love learning AND critical.. and also to mention, bit talkative… :)) WE all just have so many things to say and share.

    Don’t worry, one day we will all meet! 😉

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